In 1987, when Dan Johnson was just ten, his father, an injured US Air Force veteran, finding his skill set was not transferrable to civilian life, sank into depression and an eventual mental collapse that led to suicide. Thirty years later, his son is releasing Hemingway, a conceptual five-track EP cum audio book that seeks to raise awareness about the warning signs of suicide, especially among military veterans who, with, on average, twenty a day taking their own lives, account for 18% of all such deaths each year. In tandem with a non-profit online organisation based in Texas, he also wants to educate the public on the resources available to communities to help.
All the songs are autobiographical in nature, opening with ‘The Favor’, a brooding number with a sparse, desert-dry Weissenbaum guitar intro that harks to his own spiral down into a life of drugs and women, electric guitar snarling as Russell growls and part-speaks his way through the lyrics in way that conjures both Cash and Jennings at their darkest outlaw height.
Mingling echoes of Prine and Kristofferson and with Lloyd Maines on pedal steel, the mid-tempo waltzer title track is inspired by his father’s life. It tells the story of a young boy signing up at 18 and earning his nickname for his fiery nature as well as his tale-spinning, invalided out at 19 with loss of limbs and serious facial injuries, “too modest to speak of his pain”, unable to get work, and eventually taking “the Hemingway out.” Closing on haunting trumpet notes, it stands shoulder to shoulder with anything off Mary Gauthier’s similarly-themed Rifles and Rosemary Beads.
Opening on Springsteenesque piano, a six-minute stadium-sized muscular anthem with strings arrangement, ‘Bloom’ is a more upbeat number, one inspired by his three daughters and the experience of watching them grow and blossom underscored by a reminder that he came close to never doing so.
Heralded by the sound of a cigarette being lit and set to a flamenco guitar, Cuban percussion and Texicana shuffle, it’s followed by the punningly titled, trumpet-embellished ‘Tom Waits For No One’, a painful memory of a break-up, smoking with two empty glasses on the table waiting for a woman who never returns.
Framed by desolate sound effects of creaking boards and a cruel wind, it ends with another outlaw country-styled storysong ‘Lone Gunman’s Lament’, a song born from how, haunted by guilt and regret, Johnson came close to following in his father’s footsteps only to finally resolve to see things through and pour his pain and anger into his songs. It comes with a false ending as a sustained drone, punctuated by what sounds like the loading of a gun gradually, ebbs away into a final semi-spoken confession about making wise choices about “what you’ll live, or die even kill for.”
As mentioned, it comes with a second audiobook disc, a collection of short stories (running up to an hour) linked to or inspired by the songs, written in collaboration with novelist Travis Erwin, as well as spoken versions of the songs themselves. It’s also available as a paperback.
Following on from an eponymous 2015 debut with the Salt Cedar Rebels, itself firmly in classic outlaw country mode, this is Johnson’s first solo foray. On the evidence of both the songwriting and the music they feature, both he and the band deserve a far wider audience.
Artist’s website: www.danjohnsonmusic.us
‘Hemingway’ – lyric video: